Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist
Adjunct Professor of Computer Science
Associate Director
Institute for Artificial Intelligence
The University of Georgia

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What to do when a Windows computer hangs
LEAD MPEG2 Eval Decoder (2.0)
The Bilski case (software patents)
Teachers Retirement System of Georgia COLAs
Volcano near Winder, Georgia?
Nokia 6085 cell phone review

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USED BOOK SALE
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2008
November
29-30

Nokia 6085 cell phone

I am again trying out a new cell phone. Readers will recall that, two years ago, I briefly had a Samsung D407 which I sold after discovering that its exterior buttons would make it wake up and call people when it was merely jostling around in its holster.

Now I have a Nokia 6085, from AT&T, which I bought new, but unlocked, from rayman906 on eBay.

For "wallpaper" I created the picture of Saturn at the right, a 160×128-pixel JPEG with space at the top and bottom for both white and black lettering to appear. I got it onto the phone by e-mailing it to xxxyyyzzzz@mms.att.net, where xxxyyyzzzz stands for my cell phone number. Because this phone has AT&T firmware, it can do MMS (sound, picture, and video messaging) on AT&T's network. But it is unlocked, so I can use it for voice and SMS (text) on any network, such as Virgin Mobile when I (hypothetically) go to England.

Impressions of the 6085 so far:

  • Although wordy, the user guide is curiously incomplete. For instance, "silent mode" is only mentioned briefly in one place as far as I can see.
  • A long press on the # key is supposed to set "vibrate mode" but doesn't. I can still get to vibrate mode through the menus. But I've begun to think that vibrate mode is usually a bad idea. If I don't want to take calls I'll just turn the phone off.
  • The phone seems ruggedly built, and although there are external buttons on the side, they are inset so that they aren't easily pressed by accident.
  • The camera appears to work, and it will record video. The built-in MP3 player and FM radio require an extra headset.
  • Sadly, I can't use the plethora of Nokia chargers that I have left over from the old days (7 years ago); the new ones use a smaller connector.
  • The external display (showing the time of day) is almost useless; the one on my old Samsung X495 is much better.
  • I can't tell if the reception on this phone is better than others, as some people have reported.

[Addendum:] How I made a custom ringtone: I found suitable music (Bach's Minuet in G from the Notenbuchlein) on a CD, extracted it with Adobe Audition, trimmed it down to 30 seconds, converted to mono, normalized the volume, and saved as an MP3 file. (The maximum file size is something like 200k.) Then I e-mailed it to myself the same way I did the picture. It sounds great!

[Addendum 2:] A correspondent asks whether malicious strangers could install wallpaper or ringtones on my phone by e-mailing them. No — nor by MMS-messaging them from their own cellphones. You can send me files, but you can't make my cellphone do anything in particular with them; I have to choose to receive, save, and install them myself. (And if I start getting garbage from strangers, I'll turn off MMS altogether; I rarely use it.)



The shopping riot of 2008

If this weren't in The New York Times, I'd think it was a hoax.

Shoppers eager to get into a Long Island (N.Y.) Wal-Mart broke the doors down at 4:55 a.m. (5 minutes before the scheduled opening) and trampled an employee to death. They reportedly did not stop even when police arrived, and they jostled and pushed officers who were trying to perform CPR on the victim.

What did they think was in that store? The actual Friday-after-Thanksgiving bargains at Wal-Mart aren't that different from its regular prices — certainly not such as to justify breaking down doors. And three other stores nearby also reported unruly crowds during the wee hours of the morning.

Has post-Thanksgiving shopping turned into a ruthless competitive sport? Or did someone knowingly incite a riot, perhaps by spreading rumors that the first N people would get some huge prize? Let's follow this story and see what comes out in the investigation.

If I were the management of Wal-Mart, I'd be seriously tempted to close that store permanently, on the ground that the location isn't safe.

[Addendum:] A correspondent points out that Wal-Mart offered a 42-inch TV for about $600 instead of the usual $1000, and that might be enough to inspire people to fight their way into the store, knowing that only the first few customers will actually get the item. He also points out that these bargain items are easy to resell on eBay.

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2008
November
28

A sense of proportion

If you buy a cup of their gourmet coffee, Starbucks will donate a whopping five cents to help AIDS victims in Africa.

I challenge you to do 100 or 1000 times better than that. Share some real money with the needy. Not just a nickel on a $4 cup of coffee. Drop a $5, $10, $20, or $50 bill in the nearest Salvation Army kettle. Or donate directly to The Global Fund (which Starbucks is supporting) or any charity you wish.

It beats spending an extra $3 on coffee just so that a worthy charity will get five cents.

One more note: Church-affiliated charities are usually very efficient. Don't donate to anything that approaches you by making an unsolicited phone call — those organizations range from inefficient (wasteful) charities to outright impostors.

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2008
November
27

Happy Thanksgiving!

  This Thanksgiving finds the Covington family happier and more prosperous than in any recent year that we can remember. (And also busier!)

Sharon has just turned 20 and we no longer have a teen-ager. And this is the first Thanksgiving since 1988 when we haven't all four been together, because Cathy is out of town visiting a friend — but that's OK; we're not the kind of parents who demand perfect attendance on all holidays. Instead, we're glad our children are growing up.

As I've said before, if you have things to be thankful for, and you can't thank God, at least thank a human being for something today.


Must we haggle?

A word to those about to go shopping (which doesn't include me)...

A personal-finance pundit — in New York, of course, that city so estranged from so much of North America — advises us to try to negotiate a better price on everything when we go shopping.

Please don't let this catch on. One of the strengths of America is what economists call market efficiency and the rest of us call plain dealing. What this means is that, when you shop in America, the deal you actually get is usually close to the best deal you could possibly have gotten.

The reason is that we don't turn most transactions into haggling contests. A merchant announces a price, and customers take it or leave it. Other merchants know what it is, too, and can adjust their own prices accordingly. The result is that everyone gets a good deal, not just the expert negotiators. Prices are set by all the customers and all the merchants, all interacting with each other.

Haggling is unavoidable in one-of-a-kind transactions such as selling a house. But it's costly in time, efficiency, and fairness. The last of these bothers me the most. Should people have to pay extra if they aren't strong negotiators? Or should they let a free, open market do their negotiating for them? The latter is surely better for everybody, as well as easier on the nerves.

Everybody gripes about Wal-Mart, but notice that Sam Walton made his fortune by taking market efficiency to a new level. Not only do you not haggle at Wal-Mart, you generally don't have to wait for things to "go on sale." The price you get today is close to the best you'll ever get. You don't pay a penalty for shopping on the wrong day, or for not having a lot of time to invest in shopping.

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2008
November
26

"Ain't no network fast enough..."

I have AT&T (Bellsouth) Fastaccess DSL service. I was paying $32.95 a month for 1.5-Mbps service. For just $5 more, I've upgraded to 3-Mbps service and a fixed IP address.

It doesn't speed up web surfing because there is usually something slower, farther up the line. But it will speed up large downloads (such as Windows updates) and will help maintain good performance when several of us are using the Internet at the same time.

Incidentally, AT&T has given me excellent customer service, and the upgrade took effect just three hours after I ordered it.


Another bit of communication technology: We're getting new cell phones this Christmas, but not "free" from AT&T (Cingular). We're buying them slightly secondhand on eBay. I've ordered a Nokia 6085 (very highly rated), and if it works well, we'll get three more.

I'm bemused by the way cell phones are turning into Swiss army knives. Mine will include a camera, MP3 player, and FM radio. (That FM radio might be quite useful.) I see three trends at work:

  • Engineers' lack of single-mindedness. Any time there is a microprocessor, designers start wanting to make it do everything possible. If you have enough CPU power to play chess, why not make a chess-playing machine, even if you originally set out to build an egg timer?

    (Incidentally, I don't play chess; it bores me. Does this mean I'm not a truly intelligent person? Chess is too much like work. Too much of what I do all day resembles chess, but pays better.)
  • Marketing by "features." A relatively unsophisticated way to buy almost anything is to just "count features." ("This one has WMA as well as MP3, so it must be better, even though I don't know what either of those things is.") That's how Microsoft Word got to have so many features that nobody understands. Remember "gadget cars" in the 1960s? Nowadays, some of us would rather have quality and ease of use than "features."
  • The young people's trendy gadget. Young people want a "generation gap" and are frustrated that, nowadays, there isn't much of one — they're growing up in much the same environment as their parents. (Even home computers now go back 34 years.) The solution? Just be different in any way possible; this includes using gadgets that other people don't understand.

Yes, there are Macintosh viruses: Here's one report (more precisely, of a Trojan Horse rather than a virus).


Advocacy for professors' rights to their inventions: See IP-Advocate.org. I haven't digested this material myself in detail, but I'm glad to see some opportunity for collective bargaining. Normally, universities make up their intellectual-property policies with no negotiation with anyone on the other side.

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2008
November
25

Short notes

Sales of DSLR cameras are stagnating, according to Canon. No surprise: We all have good cameras now and don't need new ones! The Canon 40D, XS, and XSi represent a plateau of technological development; it will be a long time before we feel much of a need for anything more advanced. After buying a new DSLR in 2004, 2006, and 2007, I'll probably go five years or more before upgrading again.

Meanwhile, I think the biggest thing that has happened to the economy as a whole is a change of popular culture which at least one reporter has described as "the end of bling." All of a sudden, conspicuous spending is out of fashion and conspicuous frugality is "in." Some people will waste lots of money trying to be conspicuously frugal, or at least trying to convince themselves that they are building frugality karma.

(Do Christians believe in karma? No, thank goodness. We certainly make a clear distinction between right and wrong, but we know that we are mired in our own shortcomings and can't lift ourselves out without God's help. We believe that He offers this help; we call it grace. We aren't trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps — and we certainly don't think we can accumulate any kind of merit to be proud of.)


Speaking of undeserved grace, today is the 33rd anniversary of the day I met Melody.

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2008
November
24

Is there a volcano near Winder, Georgia?

Legend has it that there is a mud volcano near Winder, Georgia, which is between Atlanta and Athens. The Creek Indians called it the Nodoroc and thought it was the mouth of Hell. Its last eruption (of gas) was some time in the 1800s.

It isn't all it used to be; it was "drained" and the landscape was altered about a century ago.

The story is told in The Early History of Jackson County, Georgia, by Wilson and White, 1914, which you can read on line here. (The book will open to the page identifying the site. Go back a few pages for background.)

Today, the place is a bog or sunken pine forest on private land, with a house next to it. It's on the old Atlanta Highway (Highway 8) due south of the Winder Airport, across the road from a railroad-car factory, just east of Barrow Memorial Gardens, at latitude +33.9720, longitude -83.6705, roughly on the word "Gardens" in the middle of this USGS topo map:

The pond near the road is not it; the Nodoroc is apparently in the middle of a thick grove of trees.

To see the whole topo map, click here. For Google's satellite image, click here. For a Microsoft Live satellite image, click here, and for an aerial photo, here.

Georgia is geologically old and has not had volcanic activity for many millennia. William Corliss sensibly suggests that the Nodoroc may be (or have been) a bog of decaying organic matter that emits gases rather than a true volcano.

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2008
November
23

A mathematical riddle

A co-worker (who is not a mathematician) asked me this the other day...

Three men share a hotel room and pay $30 for it ($10 each).

After they check in, the manager discovers the price should have been $25, so he tells the clerk to give them $5 back.

Since $5 isn't divisible into 3 equal parts, the clerk gives each of the men $1 and pockets $2.

Now the men have paid out $27 and the clerk has kept $2. That's $29 total. Where did the other dollar go?

For the answer click here.



Short notes

Student-loan bubble stops inflating: Clark Howard reports that the supply of student-loan money is diminishing and colleges are being forced to, of all things, lower tuition and fees. There was a tremendous run-up in the cost of college during the 1990s, and somehow it did not result in higher faculty salaries. But at least dorm rooms are less like jail cells than they used to be.

Meanwhile, there are now students hiding outside the U.S., not to dodge the draft, but to dodge loan repayments. Bad idea. Unlike being drafted, getting a student loan is voluntary and if you just take the money and run, you're a thief. But, just as with subprime mortgages, there may well be some culpability on the part of the lenders who pushed unreasonable loans. A national refinancing program may be the answer.


Don't let people take pictures of your keys: Keys can be duplicated from a photographic image using a new computer program. I'll bet a skilled locksmith could do it without a computer.

[Of course, a locksmith doesn't need a key or an image of a key — only access to the lock. But a pre-made key could be useful for avoiding suspicion.]

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2008
November
22

Three short notes

On the Bilski decision: So far, experts are telling me that software can still be patented, as long as the claims are tied to a computer implementation. That is, you can't patent the very idea of a computation, but you can patent computers or computer components (including software) that implement it.


On the price of petroleum, Doug Downing points out that if you say "greed" caused the price to skyrocket this past summer, you have no explanation for why it happened then rather than some other time. "Greed" is presumably permanent and the actual cause of the change must have been something else.


On the pre-election controversy about redistribution of wealth, another colleague asks: Why do you think redistribution of wealth is necessarily undesirable, and why do you think it isn't happening now? On the contrary, our present economic system is already redistributing wealth, probably in a way we don't actually want.

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2008
November
21

A DSL war story

For the past month, we've had occasional brief failures of our AT&T (Bellsouth) DSL service, and for about two days, it had been super-slow. The DSLReports speed test, Charter speed test, and Bellsouth speed test all told me I was getting about 0.1 Mbps download speed, but I was paying for 1.5 Mbps.

I want to thank Omar, in Bellsouth's Fastaccess technical support department, for helping me diagnose and fix the problem. My fellow Bellsouth Fastaccess customers may find it useful to know that when you dial 888-321-2375 for support, you can press 0 to get to a human.

The problem was actually an upgrade that backfired. Three years ago, when we signed on with Bellsouth, we kept the old modem that had come with SpeedFactory service; I never got around to unpacking the Westell modem supplied by Bellsouth.

Well, today I had to do so. It turns out that Bellsouth has modernized their DSL lines in some way that makes them incompatible with the old modem. So the Westell modem is now strapped to the wall where the old Duo modem used to be, and all is well.

[Added Nov. 21:] And what did I have to do to configure the modem? Nothing. I took it out of the box, plugged it into the Linksys router (which already was set up for PPPoE with the correct user name and password), and it worked.



International Space Station

The ISS with the Space Shuttle attached to it is much bigger than ordinary satellites. It passed over Georgia yesterday evening and I got this 1-second exposure, showing it as a streak because of its motion. Visually, it looked like a second Venus.

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2008
November
20

Family news

Happy birthday, Sharon! Today you're no longer a teen-ager. May God bless the journey you have before you.

And congratulations to my great-uncle, Ira E. Aaron, who will soon celebrate his 90th birthday and who is on the first page of the 2009 Who's Who in America.

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2008
November
19

Windows gets cloned

Want to run Windows software without using Windows? For a while, there has been an open-source package called WINE (Windows Emulator) for Linux. Now commercial support for it has gotten serious, under the name Crossover Linux.

Old-timers may remember when DR-DOS, a.k.a. Caldera DOS, a.k.a. Novell DOS, popped up and gave Microsoft DOS some serious competition. (It ran all the same software.) That, in turn, was preceded by the "cloning" of the BIOS firmware inside of the IBM PC, so that Compaq and other companies could make PCs without violating IBM's copyright.

Perhaps the best thing about third-party workalike operating systems is that they really pin down how the operating system works. Does it just provide the documented functions, or does Microsoft software use secret, undocumented OS functions too? Cloning the OS is the sure way to find out.

I should add that Crossover Linux is not a full clone of Windows. The operating system itself, and the user interface, remains Linux (which looks a lot like Windows nowadays). What Crossover adds is the ability to run Windows software.

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2008
November
18

A new outlet for amateur photographers?

I've ordered myself a customized Capital One credit card with a picture on it.

A picture that I took.

Of a lunar eclipse.

I figure it will make the card look distinctive and will remind me that credit cards are inherently a bit loony.

Apparently, these customized credit cards are big business. Capital One has a large stock photo collection, and they're running a photo contest.

The advertising suggests that pictures of couples are popular. What more romantic place to put a picture of yourself and your beloved than on a credit card?

Capital One sternly cautions me that I can't get another custom card for 30 days. Actually, that's awfully generous; I had expected the customized card to be a one-time offer. But I suppose there are fickle people who feel hemmed in by the 30-day limit. If you go through girlfriends faster than that, I suggest not putting their pictures on your credit card.



Chemistry, the illegal hobby?

Further to something I've talked about before, see this news item from the American Chemical Society.

And contrast the situation before WWII, when chemistry, as a scientific hobby, was comparable to electronics or metalworking.

The problem seems to be government by the ignorant. The general public, including local authorities, has come to think that anyone who does chemical experiments at home must be making either bombs or methamphetamine. Somehow, requiring everybody to study chemistry in high school seems to have resulted in nobody having any appreciation for it!

In Texas you have to have a permit even to buy an Erlenmeyer flask. That's just silly.

(But true; see the actual document here. I see no objection to restricting the chemicals on the Texas list, which are unusual substances that almost all have obvious connections to psychotropic drugs. But why restrict common glassware? Do they actually enforce that?)

The amount of persecution that has reportedly been directed at retired professional chemists is particularly troubling. It's as if the rest of the public thinks they're witches.

By the way, my scientific hobbies do not include general chemistry. But there are Erlenmeyer flasks in the darkroom... which is not in Texas.

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2008
November
17

Trivia

No matter how dull I make this blog, people keep reading it.

While I wasn't looking, Nabisco Cheese Tid-Bit crackers went extinct six years ago. I ate lots of them as a baby. Actually, I thought they had been extinct for longer than six years. They will be missed.

Please get a flu shot. Influenza is a more serious illness than most people realize — it kills people who are in frail health, and by being immunized, you protect not only yourself but also your neighbors.

I've rewritten my recent entry about the probability of extraordinary claims.

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2008
November
16

More econo-miscellany

[Revised.]

It's the gasoline, stupid: Only a few economy pundits have noticed how much the wild recent swings in the price of gasoline have interefered with the interpretation of economic indicators. For example, how much of the large recent drop in retail sales (measured in dollar volume) is due to gasoline becoming cheaper? If you enjoy making bad news out of good news, you can complain that gas stations' income has plummeted.


Maybe you can't afford to live there: A personal finance columnist reports that when she says, "You shouldn't spend more than so-and-so percent of your income on housing," people respond, "You just don't understand how expensive it is to live in Los Angeles!"

So do you have to live in Los Angeles? Maybe you should admit there are places you can't afford to live — that L.A. has priced itself out of the market. When the real estate bubble was starting to pop, I deplored the way fashionable young adults seemed to think that only a few small parts of the U.S. are fit to live in.

I've actually had New Yorkers ask me how I could stand living in Georgia with nothing but cow pastures and pine trees. (I ask them if they've heard of CNN, Coca-Cola, or the world's busiest airport.) And real estate prices show that plenty of people will buy worthless swampland if it's "in Florida" in preference to fine beachfront property in, say, South Carolina. People don't know enough geography.

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2008
November
15

Econo-miscellany

Now may be the time to buy stocks — they're underpriced.

Now may also be time to refinance your house. People with excellent credit ratings are being offered rates appreciably lower than the banks are advertising. Lenders are hurting for business — now's your chance.

The software industry is still in a tizzy about Bilski. More discussion (at great length!) here. We may have genuinely seen the end of software patents. Tidbit: Microsoft filed an amicus brief (along with Dell and Symantec) asking for the court to rule more or less the way it did. The computer industry itself doesn't want software patents, or at least, not abstract ones not specifically tied to advances in computer technology. They also point out very rightly that many software patents should be shot down not for non-physicality but for obviousness.



What the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia
is really up to

[Revised and shortened.]

The Teachers Retirement System of Georgia (TRSGA) is one of the last good old-fashioned pension plans. Retirement benefits don't depend on the stock market or on any decisions made by the members. After 30 years' service, a faculty member can retire on 60% salary and work full-time for someone else. So if you want to be my next employer, get in line early... But I digress.

Last month, a minor panic ran through the news media because of reports that TRSGA was going to stop giving regular 1.5% semiannual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in order to save money.

Well... Everybody was mistaken. A couple of days ago we got a memo (dated a month ago) explaining the policy that is actually being proposed. What they actually want to do is tie the COLAs to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Very sensible. An automatic 1.5% raise every six months happens to have matched the long-term average inflation rate closely for the past 25 years, but there's no reason to assume it always will.

[Amid strong protests from people who didn't realize the proposal involved indexing to the CPI, the proposal was voted down on November 19; the COLAs will continue to be automatic, 1.5% per six months.]

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2008
November
14

(Extra)

The McColo incident

I said that the worldwide spam conspiracy could be toppled with a nudge, and now someone has nudged it and knocked most of it over. Or so I'm told.

I cannot confirm any of this myself — all I know is what I read in the news media. But, reportedly, 40% to 75% of the world's spam was coming from one web hosting company, McColo.com in San Jose, California, which has now been taken off line. See reports on the BBC and the San Jose Mercury-News (Silicon Valley's local newspaper).

It was apparently busted entirely through private efforts spearheaded by a Washington Post investigative reporter with the support of one or more private organizations.

Kudos to them. But why didn't the FBI or Homeland Security do this? We pay taxes...

And I know it's not a permanent victory. The spammers will relocate and resume activities. But at least they've been given a bad day. To reduce crime, you don't have to make crime impossible — you just have to make it harder.

And at least one more bit of traditional law-enforcement wisdom, long missing from the Internet, was put into action here: If you can't get the big guy, get his associates. That is, take down the "crime-friendly" service providers even if you can't catch the arch-criminals.


We live in interesting times! In the past day or two, astronomers have photographed extrasolar planets (including a 22nd-magnitude companion of the star Fomalhaut) and gasoline has come down to $1.979 a gallon (from $4.599 in the late summer). What other strange things are going on?

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2008
November
14

The Bilski case

If you deal with software patents, or possible software patents, in any way, you need to know about the Bilski decision, handed down October 30. Full text here; good summary here; discussion here and many other places.

The Bilski decision establishes that purely mental processes, such as financial arrangements, are not patentable. Maddeningly, it still does not make it perfectly clear whether software is patentable. Patents have to be tied to machinery — but is a general-purpose computer a sufficiently specific machine? Obviously, it adds nothing to a patent if you say, "run this algorithm on any kind of machine that can run it," so the mere existence of general-purpose computers shouldn't affect patentability.

It used to be that you couldn't patent software, only mechanical or physical processes. Computerized controls built into a very specific machine could be included in a patent; algorithms per se could not.

Then, in the early 1990s, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office started granting patents on "business methods," which opened the door for patents on software without a specific machine component, and patents on software started being issued regularly.

Now Bilski seems to have reversed that, although the experts are still discussing it.

Personally, I think a lot of the objection to software patents is simply that many of them have not been very good patents — have not been original, unobvious inventions. The patent on Amazon's one-click checkout is an example. "Check out by pressing one button" is not an invention, only a wish for an invention (like "build a heavier-than-air flying machine"). A particular way of implementing it would be a patentable invention. But somehow someone got a patent on the very idea, without any substantial new technology in the implementation.

Also, with software, the risk of independent re-invention is much higher than with machinery, simply because a person doesn't have to possess anything in particular (special machines, materials, etc.) to work on a software idea. This was probably the insight behind the original doctrine that algorithms, as mathematical discoveries, shouldn't be patentable — anyone could think them up at any time.

I do consulting related to patents that involve software, so the Bilski case is of great interest to me. Let's see how it shakes out.

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2008
November
13

Book sale

I'm selling some used books (mainly linguistics books) through Amazon.

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2008
November
12

Spam system infiltrated and studied

[Updated.]

The most amazing news story I've seen recently is this one. As you know, spam e-mail is sent from the virus-infected PCs of unsuspecting victims; by controlling the viruses remotely, spammers send out huge amounts of e-mail without having any substantial amount of it come from one place.

Well, one of these networks has been infiltrated, tampered with, and studied by computer security experts, all without the spammers realizing it. They conclude that spammers make remarkably little money — maybe $2 million per year (in receipts, not profits) from the entire "Storm" system, comprising tens of thousands of virus-infected PCs and billions of e-mail messages. Their net profit might be as little as a tenth of that.

This supports my theory that relatively few people are behind almost all spam, not only because so much of it is one virus network, but also because there's not enough money to support a thousand spammers.

The researchers suggest that if we make spamming even slightly more expensive, such as by making spam blockers or e-mail authentication better, it would be a huge discouragement to spammers. That is, we're close to winning the arms race. Spamming, if it is really done for the purpose of making money, could be knocked down with a nudge, not heavy artillery.

I have another idea. If you can break into their virus network, why not destroy it?

And yet another: Just try some old-fashioned law enforcement. Buy things from them, follow the money, and catch your spammers. Most of them are breaking long-standing laws (e.g., selling prescription drugs without a prescription), not just the CAN-SPAM Act.



More short notes

An un-Clare risk: My Cambridge college is going to invest borrowed money in the stock market. I'm worried. If I didn't know that the average IQ there is about 200, I'd be more worried.



The do-it-yourself mindset: A somewhat rambling think piece in Make: Magazine suggests that the American elite needs to get back to making useful things, rather than just manipulating other people's money. I tend to agree. In order to stay sane, we have to do useful work, and in order to keep our economy sane, we have to recognize useful work when we see it. Too many of my contemporaries have never had the satisfaction of making any physical object with their own hands to meet their own needs.

[Update: The article cites Thomas Friedman in support of the "maker spirit" but Friedman is better known for advocating outsourcing to India. Hmmm... A quick search of book reviews suggests Friedman has enough opinions to outfit several people.]



[Major revision Nov. 16.]

Why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: In Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, E. T. Jaynes points out that if you are trying to explain a very improbable result, then moderately improbable alternatives become very important.

He describes an ESP experiment in which a woman guessed cards with 25% accuracy; pure chance, for this set of cards, would have given 20% accuracy. Over tens of thousands of trials, she kept it up. The odds of this happening by chance were less than one in a trillion. (Maybe a lot less; I don't remember the numbers.)

So does this compel us to believe in ESP? Not necessarily, says Jaynes, because there are other possibilities. Careful steps were taken to prevent cheating, so maybe the chance that she cheated was only one in a million. That's tiny, but it's still a lot bigger than one in a trillion. What we should be looking at is the probability of getting the results by cheating, not just the probability of getting the results by chance. And by that criterion, what has occurred is not quite so extraordinary.

Note that we are still working against a strong preconception that there is no ESP. And that preconception need not have come from a reliable source, and need not be true. As an example, Jaynes points out that, a few centuries ago, all educated people were sure that meteorites (stones falling from the sky) didn't really happen; they were just ignorant folklore. And they "disproved" all the observations, dismissing them as more likely to be fakes or illusions. But then they made more observations...

I add: Does this method even ask the right question? Not entirely. The right question is not just "How unlikely is the strange phenomenon?" but also, "Can we find out anything more about how it works?" Does the ESP lady guess some cards more accurately than others? (Since she got almost exactly 25% instead of 20%, maybe one of the five cards is marked.) Is there any other clue waiting to jump out at us? That's how you find out what's really going on. Or as I express it to my graduate students, What is the data trying to tell you?

For example, biologists studying poisons look for a dose-response effect. If X causes Y, then more X should cause more Y. If you just have a random association of some X with some Y, you probably have a coincidence.

In general, the best confirmation of an experimental result is that it helps you fill in the big picture, helps you understand how the universe works. And that's why I don't believe in ESP. The scattered "good" experiments don't fit together to explain anything. That's why I think they are more likely to be random coincidences, or fakes.

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2008
November
11

Short notes

Ninety years ago today my grandfather, Charles Covington (1898-1973), received his draft notice. On the same day, the Germans gave in and signed the armistice. We Covingtons are tough!

Seriously on Veterans' Day, reflect for a moment that your freedom depends on other people's sacrifices. Eisenhower made a moving speech about World War II veterans and how they fought so hard for other people's freedom, not just their own.


ARMs are dead: Today a 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage costs 5.95%; a 30-year fixed-rate one, 6.05%. If anybody still wants an ARM, I don't know why. Maybe that era is over. Forecasts, by the way, call for interest rates to remain low for two or three years.


I'm in David Intersimone's blog with some early memories of Turbo Pascal on a 4.77-MHz 8088.


Finally, look at this German Volkswagen advertisement. Two odd things: (1) VW is running a bank, not selling cars; (2) their customer is apparently using a planisphere (rotating star chart) to plan his finances. Do the Germans know something we don't?

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2008
November
10

A codec moment
How to set the priority of rival video decoders

Whenever Windows plays an audio or video file, it uses a codec (coder-decoder), which is a software component that can be provided by Microsoft or by third parties. Since codecs come in with application software, it is common to have more than one for the same kind of file.

In my case, I had installed an evaluation version of LEADTOOLS Multimedia SDK, a very versatile graphics and video component package for software development. Part of it was a codec for MPEG-2 video files.

Because it had not been "unlocked" with a serial number, LEADTOOLS' codec displayed the message

LEAD MPEG2 Eval Decoder (2.0)

at the bottom of the screen whenever I played an MPEG-2 file. And I do mean whenever — even in Windows Media Player!

Of course the message will go away when I get around to activating LEADTOOLS, with its serial numbers, on this computer. (Then I'll still be using the same codec, but without the message.) But for various reasons I wasn't quite ready to do that.

Another way to get rid of that message would be to uninstall LEADTOOLS. Then Windows would go back to its own codec (Microsoft MPEG4 Decoder).

But I didn't want to do that either. For other reasons I needed for LEADTOOLS to stay on the machine, and for the LEADTOOLS codec to be available when specifically requested. All I wanted to do was give priority to the Microsoft one.

The solution? Change the "merit" of the LEADTOOLS codecs (there are in fact three). When confronted by rival codecs for the same file format, Windows chooses the one with the highest "merit." This is a hexadecimal number, normally 600000, or 800000 for highly preferred codecs. LEADTOOLS installs with a merit of 800001 in order to beat out all the others. This is sensible, because you can't try out their codec if it doesn't actually take over.

Video codec merits are stored deep within the Registry, as part of a data field rather than as a separate key, but you can adjust them with Radlight Filter Manager, which will also give you the CLSID (long multi-digit identifier) for each codec.

Once you know the CLSID, you can also set the merit of a codec with SetMeritCommandLine.

Either way:

(1) There are three LEAD MPEG-2 decoders, all classified under DirectX Filters; make sure you get all three. Their names are:

LEAD MPEG2 Decoder (2.0)
LEAD MPEG2 Transport Demultiplexer
LEAD MPEG2 Program Demultiplexer

(2) Their merit needs to be set to 400000.

(3) Merit changes don't take effect until you log out and log back in.

A more heavy-handed way to deactivate them, which makes them completely inoperative rather than just setting them to low priority, is to unregister the DLLs. This can be done from the command prompt:

regsvr32 c:\windows\system32\LDECMPG22.DLL /u
regsvr32 c:\windows\system32\LMMpgDmxT.dll /u
regsvr32 c:\windows\system32\LMMpgDmxP.dll /u

The files remain on your computer but are no longer accessible to the operating system. To bring them back to life, use the same three commands without the "/u". These operations take effect immediately.

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2008
November
9

(Extra)

Credit-card logic

The other day Capital One thought one of the charges to my Visa card might be fraudulent. I don't fault them for being suspicious. It was a very small charge at a gas station out of state. It was in fact Cathy buying coffee, but they thought it might be a thief testing the card to see if it worked.

They called me, which was a good idea.

They also blocked online access to my transaction record, which was a bad idea. Even today, when I log in to their web site, I can't see transactions within a few days either side of the suspicious one.

And those are exactly the transactions I most need to see.

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2008
November
9

Did "robocalls" lose the election for McCain?

OK, at last I'll break my silence on the election, but without saying which candidate I supported; I only want to address a technological matter.

We've just had a rather close presidential election. If I recall correctly, the popular vote for president was split 52%-48%. A Senate race in Georgia was split 49%-48% and is going into a runoff.

And in the week before the election, my home telephone received at least 10, maybe more like 20, "robocalls" (automated political ads), many of which were duplicates (the same call twice in rapid succession).

And all of them were for Republicans.

I've checked with other people around the country, and everywhere, the Republicans had a monopoly or near-monopoly on robocalls.

Robocalls annoy people. We're on the Do-Not-Call List, but it has loopholes for political campaigns and charities. So (I'm told) does the law against automatic recorded phone calls (which are not normally permitted even if you're not on the Do-Not-Call List).

These laws shouldn't have those loopholes, but politicians are notoriously unwilling to obey the rules that they impose on other people. There is also a specious argument that "freedom of speech" means political robocalls must not be restricted. To which I say, nonsense, we've been hearing the same argument since the early days of spammers, and the answer is, your political speech does not give you the right to use my equipment, not even my telephone. Free speech, yes; captive audiences, no.

But a bigger thing may have happened this time. By robocalling, the Republicans may have lost the election.

This year, none of the calls appeared to be fake. But if I were a politician, I would want robocalls banned because of the risk of fake robocalls — calls made by my opponents, claiming to represent me but actually misrepresenting me. (Just being represented as a pesky robocaller would be bad enough.) When robocalls are banned, we'll know that only outlaws make robocalls.



Telescopes, binoculars, and... assault rifles?

Speaking of things that might be banned (and already are in some states)...

A major west coast telescope dealer, who also sells binoculars and birdwatching supplies, is now selling guns, including Swiss assault rifles (more details here).

So if you are fascinated by machines designed to kill human beings in large quantities — which I am not! — there's your chance.

What this has to do with astronomy or birdwatching, I don't know. Please don't bring it to the observing session. (If your observing site has a problem with invading armies, it's much worse than mine, which only has mosquitoes.)

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2008
November
8

Short notes

That "hologram" on CNN was not a hologram. It was just a multi-camera variation on the old trick of putting a person into a picture taken with a different TV camera.

It's the 25th anniversary of Turbo Pascal, one of the best compilers the world has ever seen, the product that launched the career of Anders Hejlsberg, who went on to give us Microsoft .NET Framework.

You can put a little Media Player window into any C# program to play videos or sound, with or without buttons to enable the user to control it. I'm going to use this. In brief experiments, it worked beautifully and was very fast starting up. Inter alia, it's a way to play MPEG-2 files without incurring royalties, since you're using the player that Microsoft already paid for.

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2008
November
7

What to do when a Windows computer hangs

This is something I thought everybody knew, but it needs to be better known.

When a Windows computer hangs or freezes up, you'll usually find that the whole computer isn't frozen, only the program that you are running.

To take action, hit Ctrl-Alt-Del (all three keys at the same time) and a menu will pop up. Choose Task Manager and follow the menus to kill the program that has hung.



Vista bluescreen with WIN32K.SYS error

Even Windows Vista doesn't run well on defective hardware. Just now I got a "bluescreen" (with error messages in white on blue — no windowing) and my computer crashed. In two years of using Vista on three or four computers, I've only seen one or two bluescreens.

The error messages pointed to win32k.sys, a major part of the operating system.

On looking around, I find that it's probably a memory problem, and if it recurs, I'll have to replace a RAM module. Not Bill Gates's fault.

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2008
November
6

A ripple through academia

The latest scandal in the academic world has to do with a professor at Emory who reportedly earned half a million dollars as a consultant from a drug company while also managing a federally funded study of one of that company's products at Emory and concealing the conflict of interest from his employer.

If that sounds like a confusing situation, it is. Professors are allowed to consult — in fact, since most of us are not 12-month-a-year employees, that's how we earn part of our living.

Naturally, there are limits on how much we consult. In my case, I can do up to 8 hours a week when working full-time for the University, and this amount can be averaged over periods of time; I don't have to stop after 7 hours and 59 minutes any particular week.

There are also, of course, limits on conflict of interest. I can't do consulting that would bias the way I do my job, especially if it's externally funded research. That's what got the Emory professor in trouble.

When there's any possibility of a conflict of interest, the University "manages" it in various ways, mostly by specifying the details of the work so that the conflict is removed, or when that is not possible, by setting a $10,000-per-year limit. Emory has the same limit, and that, of course, is what the scandal is about.

And because the Emory scandal has sent a ripple through academia, all universities are tightening up their policies. I recently had to send all of my clients an explicit notification that the University has rights to anything invented using its facilities. (That's why I never use the University's facilities for consulting work.) Soon, I'm probably going to have to have written consulting agreements with all clients.

I want to assure my consulting clients that, except for possible additional paperwork, nothing has changed. I have been following the appropriate policies all along and already have written permission from the College of Arts and Sciences to work as a consultant.

My take on the scandal and the response? Certainly, conflicts of interest should be eliminated, and there is nothing wrong with running a tight ship. But you don't catch whales with a minnow net. The Emory professor apparently was "managed" very carefully, and he simply didn't tell the truth when asked.



Short notes

Now you can learn the truth about string data types in C#. Internally, String and StringBuilder both have special powers.

Unlike other bloggers, I continue not to mention the...

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2008
November
5

Short notes

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!


The local Circuit City store is closing, the company as a whole is in poor condition, and the ultimate cause is reportedly inept corporate management.

In recent years I have been a regular and satisfied customer of Circuit City, but about 20 years ago I had a curious encounter with them. At the time they had no store in Athens, so I phoned an Atlanta one to find out if they sold shortwave radios. After a frustrating conversation with an excessively young salesperson who didn't know what a shortwave radio was, and thought it was somehow my fault for asking such a hard question, I asked to speak to her supervisor. She handed the phone over to him with the audible comment (about me), "He's bein' a nerd!"


A useful database: V-Soft.com will give you a list of local AM and FM radio stations audible in your area (by ZIP code), with predicted signal strength.


Useful terminology: For years I've had to tell students not to begin a paper by saying, "So-and-so is an important area of such-and-such." If your subject is important, tell us why, but skip the assertion that it's important.

Well, the editors of Wikipedia have a handy name for these uninformative words such as "important." They call them peacock terms.


This is surely the only blog entry in America that doesn't mention the you-know-what!

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2008
November
4

Electrostatic spraying

I haven't said much about where Melody works. She's the marketing manager for Electrostatic Spraying Systems, where they make spray nozzles that work miracles.

Here you see two black ceramic knobs sprayed with orange dye. The one on the right was sprayed normally. The one on the left was sprayed electrostatically — that is, the dye was given a high-voltage charge opposite to the knob. Because opposite charges attract, the spray particles followed Coulomb's lines of force and landed all over the knob.

Electrostatic spraying is a great way to reduce, by a factor of 2 to 10, the amount of pesticide or fertilizer that needs to be put on a farm crop. It's also great for spraying disinfectants and getting them into every nook and cranny. And there are other uses, too. This technology was invented at the University of Georgia.


I figured you might want to read about something other than the election!

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2008
November
2-3

Hot job market: Software developers

Despite the rising unemployment rate, there is a serious shortage of computer programmers who can develop user-friendly, ready-to-run Windows software in languages such as C#. I know — I've been trying to help people hire them, for free-lance work at $100 per hour, and there are no takers.

(None who say they'd do it for a higher price, either. If you know good independent-contractor C# programmers in either northeast Georgia or southeast Virginia, please send them my way.)

Note: I am not looking for people with a good background in something else who want to get started with C#. I have those already — graduate students. The shortage is of people who are already doing commercial-grade C#, with more than just a few weeks' experience.

When I say there's a shortage of programmers, I don't mean web developers — everybody wants to be a web developer, and there are too many. Nor do I mean database programmers, nor people who "program" only by configuring a business software package.

I mean people who are good at figuring out how to compute things (that is, people with a feel for algorithms and data structures) who also know how to build commercial-quality software in a major programming language. That means developing for Windows, not just UNIX or specialized environments such as Swing or TCL/TK.

What do you need to be a good computer programmer? A degree in computer science helps, but it's not enough. Successful programmers are largely self-taught, and the people who are waiting to be spoon-fed everything in the classroom are always lagging behind. Indeed, advanced training is not as important as thoroughness with the basics. You don't need calculus, but you need to be the kind of person who clearly understands every detail of 8th-grade arithmetic.

You also can't be a computer snob. Maybe you're proud of your Macbook, but MacOS and UNIX are not where most of the market is. Besides, Microsoft's new Windows API, the .NET Framework, is the first really new operating system to come along since UNIX. Sometimes, cutting-edge technology does come from large, successful companies, not just academic laboratories.

(I hasten to add that I'm not an anti-Macintosh chauvinist either. People with a good working knowledge of both MacOS and Windows are really rare. I cannot yet claim to be one of them.)

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2008
November
1

New from Microsoft

Quite a bit of information has come out recently about the next version of C# and the next version of Windows.

The latter is called Windows 7 and is Windows Vista with the user interface improved, but mainly with the name changed since so many people have told each other, for no good reason, that Vista is a Bad Thing.

One attribute of Windows 7 sounds like a bad joke. Recall that the version numbers of Windows 2000, XP, and Vista are respectively 5.0, 5.1, and 6.0. What is the version number of Windows 7? 6.1, of course.



October was the busiest month I've had in years — at least the busiest in which there was no major personal catastrophe. On October 31st, I saw some unusual things around the University, including an Associate Vice President dressed as a pirate. Here's hoping things will settle down in November!

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If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months.